A group of security researchers from Ruhr University in Germany has revealed a security loophole in the end-to-end encrypted messaging app WhatsApp.
Any individual that is in charge of the servers could embed new people in private group chats without needing the authority from the admin. Once an attacker with control of the WhatsApp server had access to the conversation, he or she could also use the server to selectively block any messages in the group, including those that ask questions, or provide warnings about the new entrant. All group members are deemed administrators, and can thus add a new group member by sending an encrypted group management message to the other participants. And the WhatsApp spokesperson also noted that preventing the Ruhr University researchers' attack would likely break a popular WhatsApp feature known as a "group invite link" that allows anyone to join a group simply by clicking on a URL.
The problem sits in WhatsApp's authentication mechanism for adding people to group chats.
With over 1.2 billion monthly active users, WhatsApp is available in more than 50 different languages around the world and in 10 Indian languages.
The only people who can get access to WhatsApp servers are staff and governments if they are taking some legal actions. The flaw here is obvious: since the group management messages are not signed by the administrator, a malicious WhatsApp server can add any user it wants into the group. It would appear as if the new person on the group chat had the authority of the admin to enter the chat.
In a statement to Wired, WhatsApp said it had looked into the problem.
"Alex Stamos, the Chief Security Officer of Facebook, in response to the report said on Twitter, "[sic] Read the Wired article today about WhatsApp - scary headline! We built WhatsApp so group messages can not be sent to a hidden user. And, if you scroll through the unread messages in the WhatsApp group manually, then the button will vanish automatically. WhatsApp has added end-to-end encryption across the app and made all conversations on the group private, which means it can not be read by any third-party, be it government, criminals or even WhatsApp itself.
We completed the implementation of end-to-end encryption in 2016 for all messaging and calling on WhatsApp so that no one, not even us, has access to the content of your conversations. Typical group chats are managed by one person who is identified as the administrator of the chat.
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